You’d think they would have horror stories of the flood, that they would have nothing else to talk about. But the girls from Sree Ayyappa College Women’s Hostel, Chengannur, who were airlifted on Saturday evening say they fear the people in their neighbourhood more than any flood.
Aditya, Vaishnavi and Parvathi, roommates at the hostel, are sitting at Aditya’s home in Karakulam, Thiruvananthapuram. After four days of fear and anxiety and many tears, they have come home. And tell their stories, by now spread through various media, with surprising calm.
Stories of being trapped inside the upper floor of a hostel without food or water or even toilet facilities, of facing abuse from the neighbours, of being beaten up by women who lived nearby. Strange sequence of events, but a disaster can sometimes bring the worst in people, perhaps out of mere frustration and misery.
Video of the girls being attacked
“We were 31 women in the hostel located at Eramallikkara, Thiruvanvandoor – 29 students of the college, a matron and a cook – both of whom were aged,” Aditya begins. “Flood waters came to the hostel four days ago. We heard a warning before that, that the Pampa dam was opened and everyone should move out.”
Parvathi tried to go home to Ochira, but the matron wouldn’t let her, saying the water flow was too much.
All the girls stayed back that night. Next morning they found the ground floor flooded. Seniors took the junior girls to the upper floor, which had two terraces. From the terrace they could see their college, hardly ten feet away. The girls saw that a relief camp was set up at the college and the people in the area were housed there – 624 of them. But there was no way for the girls to go to the camp. The water below would reach their head, they didn’t know to swim and they couldn’t wade. So they waited in the terrace, hoping help would come.
Hostile attitude of neighbours
That’s when the attitude of those in the camp became hostile. When the girls called for help, they would tell them, “it’s ok, you are safe.”
They were not. When the ground floor got flooded, water entered the kitchen, which meant there was no food or water. The toilets too were clogged and they couldn’t use them. There was no electricity either.
The young women then thought logically. The charge in their phones would not last long – they didn’t know how long then. But they were cautious, they used one phone for calls, and saved the charge in the others. They would limit the calls only to communicate the situation in the minimum words.
It worked. The charge lasted. They were continuously in touch with people at home.
Parvathi, Vaishnavi and Aditya
But logic was not going to save them from the horrible experiences they were going to face those four days. The people at the camp, for some reason, had taken a dislike to the girls, coming from all parts of the state.
“We can only make guesses why these people, whom we have known before and were always good to us, have suddenly turned against us,” says Vaishnavi.
It began with them telling the girls that there was no need to go away, that they were safe at the hostel. It got worse when the girls began shouting when the helicopters passed them.
“We had read that victims were supposed to shout or show something that would get the attention of the helicopters, otherwise they wouldn’t see us trapped here,” Aditya says.
So the girls shouted and waved their colourful shawls. “Stop shouting. If you shout, they would ignore the rest of us,” the men from the camp told the girls. “We would do it, we are following the instructions we read about,” the girls replied. And then it was a showering of cuss words on the girls.
“We think they didn’t want the helicopters to come to us because one, they feared these large machines that would hit some part of their houses and bring damage. Two, we guess they were afraid we were going to snatch their share of the food. Three, our phones still had charge while theirs were mostly off by then. So we were the only way of contact to the outside world,” Aditya says.
Passing on false information
Apart from this, the people at the camp were giving out false information that the girls at the hostel were safe. Even the college principal and their teachers would only listen to the townsfolk and not believe their own students. The girls were pained by this.
“When we contacted (Eramallikkara) ward member S Renjith, he said it was not his duty to check on the girls, that’s the principal’s. He had to take care of the people in his ward,” Aditya adds.
At home, with parents
A day later, it got worse. A few men at the camp began flashing the girls, making vulgar requests.
The girls couldn’t figure out the reason for this new hate. “Maybe because we are all women and couldn’t go out by ourselves. We couldn’t swim,” Vaishnavi says.
They began wondering why help was not reaching them even after they send out so many messages. “That’s when we figured it out. Whatever messages go out, they first check with the local authorities and our ward member would tell we are safe, there was no need for rescue ops.”
Another rumour was that the girls refused to go on the boats and helicopters that had come to rescue them. “We couldn’t even go to a toilet for four days! Why would we refuse to be rescued!”
The food packets for the girls were dropped at the camp in the college and it was never passed onto them. “They wouldn’t pass the medicine, and there was a cancer patient among us,” Aditya says.
Finally on Saturday morning when after three days they got the first packets of food, it was not taken well by their neighbours. “It’s all about the food. They would say we are eating their food. The moment food packets were dropped at the camp, they would all fight for it,” Vaishnavi adds.
The girls then tried new ways to get the attention of the helicopters. They prepared coloured charts and towels and wrote messages like SOS with ink. The men in the copters may not be able to read the messages but the colours would catch their attention. One flew down and Colonel Prashant, a Garuda commando of Indian Air Force, came out.
“As soon as he came, ward member Renjith ran in from somewhere and asked him why the copter came here. He said it would damage their buildings. The Colonel asked him, so shouldn’t we save the girls. There was an argument. And we told the Colonel about all the abuse we have been facing, including the flashing. The colonel told us that they would come back an hour later after filling the fuel needed to transport us,” Aditya says.
Camera: Sreeksh Raveendran Nair, Editor: Akruti Rao
It is in this gap of an hour that the attack, that’s now going viral, happened. Four women – Parvathy, Gisha (Manju), Anu and Salitha – from the neighbourhood came up the hostel and began thrashing the girls, throwing chairs at them, and tearing their clothes. “When they saw I was taking a video they slapped me and I have a swelling in my neck,” says Parvathi.
Vaishnavi was caught on the neck and her clothes were torn.
But the commando kept his word and an hour later, just when the girls were losing hope, the helicopter returned. They took the girls up one by one. But after 13 girls were airlifted, heavy rains began to pour and the operation could not be continued. The commando promised that he would come back for the rest of the girls at 6 the next morning.
“But the girls were afraid to stay till then, not fearing the floods, but the people around them. They would kill them. The girls – 15 of them – made suicide threats, that they would jump into the waters below if they were not rescued. So finally through ropes and boats and other vehicles they were taken to a rescue camp in Chengannur,” says Parvathi.
In the middle of all this, only the old peon of the college - Aneesh - had any sympathy for the girls and supported them throughout. "He is a heart patient, but he has been there with us, speaking kind words."
The old matron and the cook too were really helpful when the water became too much, and brought to the girls the essentials they would need.
Ward member's comment
In a recorded call between IAC cadet Ambarish and Renjith, the complaint received from the girls about the abuse and attack on them, and from Colonel Prashant, is discussed. Renjith can be heard talking about the terrible situation of the place. "We are running to get food for the people, milk for children. But we have no money, not even water. We haven't said or done anything against the girls."
Ambarish then asks him about the video clipping of the women beating up the girls, and Renjith then admits that it was not right, and he won't justify it, but it is the ignorance of simple villagers, and to forgive them. "They are all poor villagers here going through a tough time. If you come here, you would understand the situation. We are all afraid. When the helicopter came we became afraid. It had broken down one of the houses completely," Renjith says.
Ambarish then reassures him that whatever losses happen through evacuation will be compensated by the state government but the complaint was on a different matter. The case would be re-investigated and taken up by the state government, he adds.
The Kerala Women’s Commission has taken up the case.
The plight is not over. The girls don’t know how they will return to the college and to the hostile people around them. Aditya, Vaishnavi and Parvathi are final year BSc students, they have a few months more to finish the course. But right now, they are just happy to be home, to be able to have food, to be among people who loved.
(All photos: Sreekesh Raveendran Nair)